Updated: December 27, 2009 at 12:00 am
PHILADELPHIA • At one point, the Broncos were 6-0. On Sunday, they hung their heads in the postgame locker room and wondered how the convoluted AFC playoff scenario could possibly work in their favor.
One thing for certain is the 8-7 Broncos need help next week or they’ll have yet another historic collapse to regret this offseason.
They fell behind 27-10 at Philadelphia and made a remarkable comeback to tie the game.
Still, Eagles kicker David Akers made a 28-yard field goal with 4 seconds left to give Philadelphia a 30-27 victory, and there’s not enough time left in the season for feel-good losses.
“We fought valiantly and came back from some adverse situations,” Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a loss.”
The NFL said Sunday night that the Ravens and Jets are in the playoffs if they win next week. The Broncos, Dolphins, Steelers, Texans and Jaguars are alive for a wild-card spot but the league didn’t outline the Broncos’ specific scenario for making the playoffs going into the final week.
There’s a new coach from last year, and many new players, but the same late-season dread. In some ways, this season’s crash could be worse if Denver doesn’t make the postseason.
The 1978 Redskins and the 2003 Vikings are the only two teams in NFL history to start 6-0 and miss the playoffs.
Last year, the Broncos joined those 2003 Vikings as the only teams since divisional play started to lead a division by three games and miss the playoffs. This year’s Broncos led the AFC West by 31/2 games at one point.
After Sunday’s loss, the seventh in Denver’s past nine games, every big play was hashed over in excruciating detail.
A miscommunication picked off a Broncos defender and left tight end Brent Celek wide open for a 47-yard touchdown. The Broncos had the Eagles pinned back on a third-and-25 in the fourth quarter, then quarterback Donovan McNabb escaped for a 27-yard run. On another touchdown, Broncos safety Renaldo Hill got his right hand on a pass, and it deflected to Jason Avant, who juggled it in for a 15-yard touchdown.
Late in the game, after a poor punt gave the Eagles the ball at Denver’s 42 with 1:41 left, McNabb hit Jeremy Maclin for a 27-yard gain, which set Philadelphia up for a short field goal. Broncos defensive end Vonnie Holliday was convinced McNabb wasn’t even throwing for Maclin, he just overthrew his intended receiver and Denver got unlucky.
Bad luck wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Broncos.
“Guys are playing hard and hanging in there and fighting and clawing, but part of football is playing smart,” Holliday said. “At times today we didn’t play smart, and they capitalized.”
Even Denver’s comeback was flawed.
Linebacker Darrell Reid turned the momentum of the game around. After Denver cut Philadelphia’s lead to 27-17, Reid came through like a missile and got a clean shot on returner Macho Harris. Reid met Harris head on, Harris crumpled and lost the ball. Denver recovered, and one play later Knowshon Moreno was in the end zone with a 16-yard touchdown catch.
But with the game in their favor, the Broncos couldn’t take the lead. The Broncos had three straight drives start at about midfield. Two ended in punts and another in a game-tying field goal. A fourth possession started at their own 9-yard line, and Denver punted after not picking up a first down.
“We’re in this situation because we didn’t make enough plays to win the game,” Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. “Being 8-7 doesn’t mean we’re out of the playoffs. It certainly doesn’t mean we’re in, either.”